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Terrorism By Any Other Name

Bill de Blasio speaking outdoors with a hand-held microphone
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo by Kevin Case.

New York City has a long history of dealing with terrorist bombings, and Saturday night’s attempt at mayhem in Manhattan was far from the worst the city has known. Since nobody died and most injuries were minor, I expect it will be all but forgotten within a few years.

So it was highly peculiar that just about the only New Yorker who did not immediately recognize Saturday night’s attack for what it was happened to be the city's mayor, Bill de Blasio. “It was intentional, it was a violent act, it was certainly a criminal act, it was a bombing – that’s what we know,” the mayor told reporters at a press conference at Police Headquarters.

The bombing was intentional, fair enough; it clearly was not part of a subway construction project. It was violent, as all explosions are. Setting off a bomb on a busy Manhattan street is against the law – surely there is a law somewhere on the books that covers this exact scenario – so no quarrel there. And yes, we knew almost immediately that what blew up beneath a trash container and injured 29 people was an improvised explosive device, not a gas main or somebody’s overheated rice cooker. Also, though the mayor did not enumerate this point, the explosion had no obvious particular target, even though foreign dignitaries were beginning to gather on the other side of Manhattan for the United Nations General Assembly. The intent seemed to be simply to cause death and injury to anyone who happened to be nearby, rather than to anyone specific.

As The New York Times observed, terrorism is simply violence with a political motive. We don’t need to know what particular motive was at play to identify it. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made this point on Sunday when asked about de Blasio’s comments, clarifying that “I believe the mayor was saying there was no connection with international terrorism,” or, in other words, to the Islamic State group. Cuomo added, “A bomb exploding in New York is obviously an act of terrorism.”

So what was the mayor’s problem with calling the bombing what it was? He may be the only one who truly knows. We can speculate all we like about whether it was somehow meant to protect his own political prospects – de Blasio is up for re-election next year – or those of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, though Clinton herself called the bombing an “apparent terror attack” in a statement over the weekend. Maybe de Blasio just did not want to accept a fact that was obvious to 8 million of his fellow citizens.

Granted, despite both de Blasio’s dodge and Cuomo’s reassurance, there was no way to know at that early stage whether the terrorism was foreign-directed, foreign-inspired or purely domestic. De Blasio and other leaders were right to call for patience and caution rather than a rush to judgment.

That judgment, or at least a measure of it, arrived on Monday when authorities arrested Ahmad Khan Rahami, an Afghan-born U.S. citizen, on charges of planting the Chelsea bomb, as well as a second that exploded earlier Saturday in a New Jersey beach town and another device that failed to detonate a few blocks away from the Chelsea blast. Rahami, who was taken into custody in New Jersey after a shootout on Monday, has also been blamed for an explosives-filled backpack that was discovered and harmlessly detonated in nearby Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Random bombings meant to inspire terror and create mayhem have a long history in New York. While younger New Yorkers may think of them as a modern phenomenon, they stretch back as far as the wagon full of dynamite that rammed into J.P. Morgan & Co. headquarters in 1920, an event that became known as the Wall Street bombing. In 1970, three members of the Weather Underground Organization, a radical group that used opposition to the Vietnam War as a launching point for extreme anti-military and anti-government action, accidentally detonated the bombs they were building and reduced the Greenwich Village townhouse in which they were working to rubble. There was the Fraunces Tavern bombing in 1975 by Puerto Rico’s Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), which killed four and injured many others. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing killed six people and caused the evacuation of an estimated 50,000. More recently, New Yorkers saw a thwarted attempt to bomb Times Square in 2010. The justifications offered by the bombs’ maladapted creators vary, but the goals are always ultimately the same: to sow apprehension in the city’s crowded spaces, to gain attention for some cause or concern, to disrupt the rhythms of urban life and, above all, to maximize bloodshed and body count.

Yet in every instance, the city moves on almost without pause. Today, given the available tools of potential mass casualty and destruction, any attack carried out with conventional explosives seems almost quaintly tolerable, though of course there is nothing worthy of tolerance in such circumstances.

So de Blasio’s reluctance to apply the word “terrorism” to what was clearly terrorism was more baffling than disturbing. If he meant to maintain confidence in the city’s leadership, however, it was not a well-thought-out approach. The first step in maintaining public safety must be to clearly name whatever threatens it.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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